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Vasil Levski, From Clergy to Revolutionary

Vasil Levski was a revolutionary in his home country Bulgaria fighting against Ottoman rule.
Vasil Levski was a revolutionary in his home country Bulgaria fighting against Ottoman rule.Photo from everystockphoto.com

Vasil Levski was born Basil Ivanov Kunchev on July 18, 1837 in Karlovo, Rumela, in the Balkan Peninsula of the Ottoman Empire. Levski came from a family of clergy and craftsmen which would have an impact on his revolutionary career.

Levski was apprenticed under a craftsman in homespun tailoring. In 1855, his uncle Basil, an archimandrite, took him to Stara Zagora where he went to school and was his servant. He took a clerical training course and on December 7, 1858, he became an Orthodox monk in the Sopot monastery using the religious name Ignatius. In 1859, he was promoted to heirodeacon.

During the spring of 1862, Levski went to Belgrade. He was inspired by Georgi Sava Rakovski’s revolutionary ideas. Rakovski was assembling the First Bulgarian Legion, a military unit comprising of revolutionaries and volunteers to overthrow the Ottoman Empire. Levski enlisted as a volunteer. He earned his nickname Levski “Lionlike” for his courageousness. Conflicts were diplomatically resolved on September 12, 1862 disbanding the group.

Levski’s fight for change continued. He returned to Bulgaria in spring 1863. He was reported by his uncle for being a rebel and was arrested by Ottoman authorities. He was imprisoned for three months. Levski relinquished his clerical duties in Easter 1864. From May 1864 to March 1866, he was a teacher in Voynyagovo. While teaching, he provided shelter and support for persecuted Bulgarians and organized patriotic societies. His activities, arousing suspicion from the authorities, forced him to relocate. From 1866 to 1867, he taught in Tulcea County, Romania.

The Second Bulgarian Legion was formed by Panayat Hitov and Filip Totyu against Ottoman resistance. Levski was made standard-bearer of the unit. After skirmishes with the Ottomans, the legion fled to Serbia where they were granted to establish their legion. Unfortunately for Levski, he suffered a gastric ailment and required surgery. The legion disbanded under political pressure. After his recovery, he attempted to reunite the members of the legion but was arrested and imprisoned in Zajecar.

After his release, he continued his revolutionary activities. In 1869, Hitov, Levski, and Dimitar Tsenavich were founding members of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee (BRCC) to liberate Bulgaria while staying in Romania. Levski returned to Bulgaria in 1870 to form Internal Revolutionary Organization (IRO) which centered around BRCC. Its members were mostly intellectuals and traders. Membership was obtained in secrecy pledging an oath of allegiance over the Gospel or the cross; a gun and knife; treason punishable through death; and secret police monitoring activities. Encryption, pseudonyms, and signs were used for correspondence.

Levski knew he was wanted. He had to disguise himself to evade capture. The arrest of a member and testimony from other members led to his capture. On December 27, 1872, he was arrested and taken to Tarnovo. On January 4, 1873, he was taken to Sofia to stand trial. Vasil Levski was hanged on February 18, 1873. Five years after the execution, Bulgaria was liberated through the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) through the April Uprising of 1876. The Treaty of San Stefano on March 3, 1878 established Bulgaria as an autonomous Principality under de jure Ottoman suzerainty. On October 5, 1908, Bulgaria was declared independent.

The bust of Vasil Levski is outside at the Embassy of Bulgaria at 1621 22nd Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20008.